It can be brutal to have your work rejected. Tom Harvey has devised a ‘Humane Commissioning Manifesto’ to fight back against insensitive and damaging practices.
With mental health problems on the rise in the creative sector, there has never been a better time for a ‘Humane Commissioning Manifesto’. We simply must treat people better if we are to have a healthy sector, occupied by healthy creative people. Far too much of our commissioning process polarises and alienates us all, having a dehumanising effect on those taking part - on both sides of the commissioning table.
With cultural and creative budgets being driven constantly down, we are in danger of allowing our sectors to become amateur
I have been involved in commissioning processes ranging from community projects with budgets of a few hundred pounds to multi-million pound film and TV projects. As a writer and producer for theatre and television, I’ve also experienced the process as a practitioner. There is a lot of good practice and an awful lot of bad practice.
Any article about commissioning is actually an article about rejection. 90% of commissioning communication is about saying no and not yes. Therefore, how we reject is crucial to the development and health of the creative community. It can be brutal to have your work rejected, so anything we can do to make the impact more positive is welcome.
In my time running Northern Film & Media we became far too adept at saying no, so we created a fund that only said yes. This involved a ten-minute pitch and chat to a panel who were then all charged with finding a positive way forward for a project - sometimes money, but often introductions or ideas. It was a very positive experience for us all.
A good commissioning process is inclusive, supportive and constructive, both for those who are accepted and those who are rejected. No matter how much we ‘take it on the chin’, a harsh or bland rejection is internalised - it’s embedded as hostile and greatly affects an artist’s response to the work they are creating.
There has been a proud announcement in the theatre world that venues and casting agents will now tell the actors auditioning for them if they’ve been unsuccessful. It’s a sign of the dysfunctional nature of the business that this is seen as something for venues to be proud of. It’s actually common courtesy and should be part of any professional process that respects those participating in it on both sides.
My experience of submitting scripts to theatres varies hugely depending on the theatre. A minority don’t even acknowledge receipt, and sadly a majority fail to do much more beyond that. This is rude, alienating and negative. It’s a key reason why so many writers have mental health issues (as does anyone else in our society who is marginalised).
A draft manifesto
From these experiences I offer the following manifesto for commissioning, inspired by examples of best practice from a range of sectors.
Decide what you want
Explain exactly what you want. You will get better, more targeted submissions as a result.
Don’t use the words 'original', 'engaging', 'refreshing' or 'relevant' - all of us consider our work to be these, so it’s not helpful.
Don’t just say ‘familiarise yourself with our work’ - that’s lazy. The output of most arts organisations is incredibly varied, so point to specific pieces of work that are good examples of your strategic direction and explain why.
If you want to represent specific communities in your commissioning, then get into those communities and talk to them to encourage applications.
Don’t ask someone from that community to spread the word, unless you are going to pay them for their time marketing your organisation.
Don’t be an organisation that spends hours in meetings discussing diversity. Just be a diverse organisation.
Acknowledge receipt and say thank you. In my experience at least 20% of organisations don’t do this. Explain what the timetable will be for a response, stick to it and log applications properly.
Respond thoughtfully and bravely
Be one of the organisations that treat artists who submit work to them positively. Remember, ignoring a person is the most disempowering thing you can do, and ignoring a creative person can be mentally destabilising for them.
Aim to respond with as much detail as you can to those you reject. It’s the detail that helps encourage the creative community to engage with you again, that helps them improve and better understand what you want next time.
Don’t just say ‘other projects preferred’. Explain briefly why.
Remember, you are establishing a relationship. Like any relationship, it will sustain if you are honest.
Professionals are paid
The hobbyisation of the creative sector is crippling. It’s in no one’s interest to work for nothing, be it a treatment for a film or a detailed tender for a piece of design work.
Consider the work involved and pay people sensibly. Often money is only available for a successful final tender or at the production stage. Consider how you pay people throughout the process. The final work will be better for it.
Consider micro-payments. Even £25 for a few hours’ work buys a few beers and helps people feel valued. It also helps to instil the idea of paying people into an organisation’s culture. I have a copy of my first £100 cheque for writing framed in my office. It marks the day I became a professional writer.
Collaborate and give feedback
The production process will be intense and involves extensive communication to ensure a project works. A lot of the parameters for the work can be outlined in the commissioning process, the more detail you can get into commissioning documents and the more discussion you can get into that detail the better.
Work hard on the commissioning contractual paperwork and use it as a guide for the production management process.
Respect and value
An inclusive, constructive commissioning process is essential for the cultural and creative sectors. It’s not difficult, but it is time-consuming. Saying yes is easy, but we spend most of our time saying no. We must have a process where a no can be a positive engagement and not a brutal rejection. We must better respect and value creative people, or we will end up with a shrinking professional base and a marginalised freelance sector.
Tom Harvey is a writer and producer.